Top Chef: Cooking by MadLibs

A little inside baseball* before I get rolling. As you might know by now, I had to watch a late replay of Top Chef last night due to crushing the competition in a local LOST pub quiz. I realized that AV Club gets their recaps up the night of the episode, and that blows me away. Those New York kids don't ever sleep.

The opening scenes reveal that Andrew feels no sense of loss after watching Ryan monologue his way out the door last week. We're with you, buddy. In a moment of that trademark TC editing, Antonia's comment about how there's no more room for error is followed by an apropos-of-nothing shot of Spike. Is it too much to hope for that ol' Spite gets the boot? You might have forgotten that shot, however, because it is immediately followed by Drink #1 in tonight's installment of the DOIN IT FOR ZOI drinking game.

I'm thinking of the scene in The Big Lebowski, in which The Dude tries to explain that he's obligated to help Bunny because she was threatened with harm. Walter, sarcastically, responds with conductor hands and a sing-song mockery, "They're gonna killl this poooor woman." That's how I'm thinking about Antonia's line, "None of us are trained pastry chefs."

Really, TC producers. Just choose one pastry chef next season, so we don't have to hear this mantra again. Otherwise, every single contestant from this point out should be barred from repeating it. WE GET IT. Buy a friggin' cookbook and study before the show starts if you're so inept with desserts.

Anyway, the Quickfire is clearly desserts from the moment the chefs walk in. Alongisde Padma, author/chef Johnny Iuzzini will judge the largely-impromptu sweets. Iuzzini's forthcoming book, Dessert FourPlay, is the first of many indications in this episode that the producers (and possibly the contestants) really need to get laid. Also, is it a little ballsy to promote a book--by name--in an episode that was filmed over a full year before the book's publication?

Dale's got a Filipino shaved ice dessert recipe that he intends to utilize, and Richard's twisted brain gives forth bananas sliced to look like diver scallops. Meanwhile, Spike proves just how perfect he'll be next to Guy Fieri on the TGI Friday's commercials in a year or so by touting his "I can do it with my eyes closed" molten chocolate cake recipe. Choosing to leave that formidable bullet in his gun, he instead goes with a pineapple rum raisin souffle. Bro, didn't you watch Erik crash and burn with that idea?

Apparently he did, because Spike's dessert gets commendation from Iuzzini for at least being daring and visually impressive. Jennifer's chocolate cake with dipped banana bites is similarly complimented for its nice plating. The guest judge is interested in Mark's pavlovas and his specialty ingredients (wallah seed? walla? anyone?), but doesn't seem so thrilled by Antonia's brûléed lemon curd.

The bottom three turns out to be Antonia, Mark (whose pavlovas weren't very desserty), and in a bit of a surprise, Spike. Spike gets an A for effort, but the result wasn't particularly great. Meanwhile, Richard's banana scallops and banana guacamole took the top prize over Dale's halo-halo and Lisa's "I swore I'd do no desserts" fried wontons with pureed berries and yogurt. Richard's prize, in addition to immunity (it seems like that should be running dry pretty soon, don't you think?), is to be the sole Season 4 inclusion in the yet-to-be-published Top Chef Cookbook.

So ten chefs walk into Second City--have you heard this one?

The chefs learn that they'll be taking in a comedy show put on by Chicago's famed Second City comedy troupe. Everyone gets all gussied up, and there's Mark and Spike, hanging out in the bedroom with Mark in his underpants. Awfully daring, then, of Mark to take a weak shot at Richard for wearing pink. Glass houses, Mark, glass houses.

Everyone's having a grand old time, guffawing and, in Spike's case, smirking. But then the comics start asking for the usual audience suggestions, and after emotions and colors, ask for foods next. At this point, a cloud passes over the Top Chef table, as Nikki points out "these are going to be our dishes." As someone who has attended a comedy event like this, I actually feel for the chefs in this instance. The crowd at these things can be mind-numbingly idiotic.

The comics reveal that the chefs will have to cook for them, and will serve five courses based on the audience suggestions: "yellow love vanilla," "magenta drunk Polish sausage," "orange turned-on asparagus," "purple depressed bacon," and "green perplexed tofu." It's an interesting concept for a challenge, but what will it really show in terms of the skill of our poor chefs?

"My immediate reaction is that we are fucked," says Lisa, but as the chefs pair up to tackle these courses, it becomes clear that there's some solid efforting going into this challenge. Richard and Dale form a pretty strong superteam, while Spike and Andrew form Team Beard (anyone who watched the most recent season of Project Runway, and kept up with the EW.com boards, should be smiling knowingly about beards). Antonia and Lisa comprise a black hole of negativity, Stephanie and Jennifer are eager to work together (no Zoi shout-out, though!), and Mark and Nikki just kinda end up together.

At Whole Foods, the menus really start to come together. Richard wants to marinate tofu in beef tallow (take that, vegetarians!), but lets Dale "drive the bus" since Richard has the immunity. Antonia and Lisa both agree that Polish sausage is just so Polish sausage, so they're going to use chorizo instead, and throw some sea bass in there too. Nothing says "drunk Polish sausage" like chorizo and fish! We must all be glad that at least Spike and Andrew didn't get the sausage theme, because lord only knows how insufferable they'd have been with that goldmine of sophmoric humor.

Insufferable is Spike's middle name, however, and he goes on to crow about finally being able to make his squash soup. Dale discovers that there's no appliances in the back room, and while this twist is totally unremarked-upon by the judges, it does make Andrew work off the jitters even harder by having to manually puree the squash. When Spike uses a cheesecloth to drain out the water, Andrew comments "you know how to work a sack, dude!" ::eyeroll::

Tom announces at the end of his walkthrough that the chefs will not be serving in the TC kitchen as it had appeared, but will instead have to pack up, take their work back to the TC house, and finish there. It is at this point that I notice that, in the confessional shots, Richard's hair is looking awfully sad. It's not as much of a mess as the house kitchen when the chefs arrive, though.

Cooking finally completed, the chefs start serving the comics and judges Tom, Padma and Ted. Spike and Andrew's soup with vanilla crème fraîche has a good amount of heat, with a smoky bacon flavor that Tom appreciates. The bowl, while huge, is well-received by the full panel.

Jen and Steph come out with their titteringly phallic concoction of asparagus propped up on overly large croutons, covered in orange segments and a huge wad of Bucheron cheese. They call it a ménage à trois, and put on a show of eating it, leaving the table (and the viewing audience) to feel awkward. The food, almost forgotten in all the show, is oily and messy. Not pleasing.

Spike comments via confessional that he's confused by Richard's thought process in cooking. By gum, Spike, I dare say you've figured out their theme! Richard and Dale play on perplexity by serving meat-flavored nonmeat and a very complex green curry, and Tom is very happy with the spicy results.

Spike's comment on Antonia and Lisa's dish is that it looks like a turd. He's so erudite, but it's probably true; after announcing their theme words and subsequent menu of sea bass, chorizo, purple potatoes and tequila sauce, the table is overcome by a sea of....silence. One of the diners comments that the keywords appear to have been a burden rather than an inspiration. I'd say they just ignored them completely, but that's just me.

Lastly, Mark and Nikki (aka Team "What was your dish again?") served a plate of pork loin with sweet potato mash with grape sauce and jus that was just nice. Nothing amazing. Mark called it sexy, but if "sexy" is what you think of when your keyword is "depressing," then you've either got no sex life or a very odd one.

Padma calls out Dale, Richard, Andrew, and Spike. They are the tops, and Tom declares that the squash soup was in fact the best-seasoned dish they've had so far this year. Spike recollects warmly that it was his dear mother who always told him that soup is the best test for a chef. All I can say is that Spike's mom either looks very much like Ming Tsai, or Spike's an inveterate liar despite the entire show being in film (as Antonia pointed out). The judges liked Richard and Dale's teamwork and praise for each other, as well as the ingenuity of the recipe. Dale and Richard apparently both win, and receive $2,500 of Calphalon goodies (each, or to share?).

Dale sends Antonia, Lisa, Steph and Jen to be judged for their transgressions, and the biggest critique is the first. It doesn't matter if you wouldn't serve and don't eat Polish sausage. It was your keyword ingredient, and you need to use it. Don't get cute with the "improv" theme by "improvising" a totally different challenge. On the innuendo plate, the judges point out that the goat cheese completely washed out the orange and (most importantly) the asparagus. The plate was composed poorly, and the showiness and gimmick of it might have derailed the product. In other words, "you surrendered more dignity with that dish and its presentation than we could ever have taken from you with this oddball challenge."

So, what's worse? Underthink or overthink? The judges determine that both dishes lost track of the main ingredient, and therefore resort to judging by taste. With that as the bar, it is Jen and Steph's plate that comes up short. As the primary creator, Jennifer is instructed to exit, stage right. Lisa, in the stew room, looks inappropriately irritated. What's your beef, Lisa?

Richard and Dale are surprisingly touched by her loss, and the three share a big hug. Dale comments after she leaves that she "scared him when she cooked, she was so good." That's a really big compliment, and at the end of this episode, I'm inclined to think that this wasn't a shark-jumping episode at all. While some chefs continued to malinger, others did in fact become a little more human this week, to the overall benefit of the show.

More humanity on display next week, with kids getting sliced to ribbons by Spike, and Mark's announced concern that Chef Colicchio doesn't like him. It actually looks like it could be interesting, rather than just a joke.